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Bilingual Job, Higher Pay

EVERY day at Miami International Airport, long lines form in front of the bilingual Customs officers, often leaving their English-only peers with little to do. One day last month, the bilingual officers said: Basta (enough). Pay us more, or we'll speak only English.

In a quiet decision that could have financial repercussions for private and government employers across the nation, last week the US Treasury Department agreed to pay 5 percent higher salaries to Customs inspectors who ''substantially use a foreign language in the performance of their official duties.'' Customs workers from New York to California can now receive the higher pay, after proving that their daily work often requires use of a foreign tongue.

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For Hispanic advocates, the decision was a victory. The Customs Service ''recognized that the people who work for them who are bilingual do more work,'' says Irma Rodriguez, director of the Language Rights Program of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles.

Already, similar demands are popping up among other public servants in other states and throughout this city that calls itself the Gateway to Latin America.

Hispanic officers of the Miami Beach Police Department say their workloads are usually 30 percent heavier than their Anglo peers.

''Hispanic officers get more calls and are exposed to more hazard'' because they speak Spanish, says Gus Sanchez, president of the Hispanic Officers Association of Miami Beach. ''If you're a salesman, you make more money with the extra language, but we receive no additional compensation.''

Bilingual workers at the state attorney general's office also get swamped, says Bertila Soto Fernandez, a former prosecutor. ''You have one judge's secretary who spoke Spanish having to take calls for another judge's secretary who didn't speak Spanish, and leaving her work undone,'' Ms. Fernandez says.

In such circumstances, workers who use a second language on the job should be paid more, she says. ''The market here demands that another language be spoken.''

So far though, the calls here for more pay are coming largely from bilingual workers in the government sector. The private sector feels less pressure to hike wages.

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MORE pay for speaking two languages on the job should be a ''non-issue'' in Dade County, says Robert Bromberg, senior vice president for Republic National Bank, where 95 percent of the employees are bilingual.

''The demography of Dade County is such that there are more Hispanics, and the very idea that anyone should be seeking additional compensation for speaking English and Spanish [hasn't come up],'' Mr. Bromberg says. ''The reality is that you need a lot of people on board who can communicate with your customers.''

The Fort Lauderdale-based video rental company, Blockbuster Entertainment, says none of its employees has asked for more pay for speaking Spanish on the job.

''Bilingual skill is a plus,'' says Wally Knife, a Blockbuster spokesman. ''We make people feel comfortable whatever their language. When a Spanish customer comes in, we make attempts to have a Spanish-speaking person wait on them.''

''If we are opening a store in an area where Spanish is spoken,'' he adds, ''the person with the bilingual skill will have an edge.''

Technically, the Treasury Department's decision was made in 1994, when Congress gave Treasury the go-ahead to pay up to 5 percent more to Customs workers whose language skills often force them to work longer hours. But the Miami inspectors' protest forced the department to grant the increase.

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